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Thursday, December 13, 2012
How Under Armour designer got started

By Paul Lukas

Northwestern Uniforms
Adam Clement's Northwestern design blended the school's past with a modern look.
We're continuing today with our interview with Adam Clement, Under Armour's senior design manager for on-field product. Yesterday we talked about his controversial flag-based design for Maryland's football team. Today's segment is about Clement's design background and his role within the industry.

How old are you, and where did you grow up?

I just turned 35, and I grew up in Glen Cove, on the north shore of Long Island.

When you were a kid, did you play sports, like Little League and Pop Warner and all that?

I played Little League baseball, travel soccer, [Catholic Youth Organization] basketball and ice hockey.

Were you already into uniforms at an early age?

For as long as I can remember, yes. I always loved the drafts, because that's when they'd introduce new logos and the players would be holding up the new jerseys. That was always like Christmas to me. And if I missed any new stuff, I'd be excited to see the new designs when the season started. Obviously, this was long before the advent of the Internet, so it was a struggle to keep up with everything. But I always did.

Were you one of those kids who did uniform doodles and drawings?

Yes. I remember very vividly being in fifth grade and lying on my stomach on the floor at my grandmother's place in Florida, drawing a baseball stadium. Just an imaginary stadium. And then on the next page, I drew a uniform for the imaginary team that played in this stadium. I did a lot of drawings like that from when I was 10 or 11 until I was maybe 14. I'd include commemorative patches and stuff like that. I still have a folder full of these drawings. Amazingly, it's so similar to what I do now every day at Under Armour.

The first real uniform I got to design was for my high school baseball team. When I was a sophomore, our coach let me redo our logo and uni.

Do you still play sports today?

Yes. I play in a competitive wood bat baseball league.

Clement
Clement, who plays in a wood bat league, is still a traditionalist when it comes to baseball uniforms.
How do you wear your pants and socks?

Against all of my moral foundations, I wear my pants down. Even though some of the designs I work on are pretty progressive, I'm more of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball, so I used to wear my pants up, with stirrups. But a few seasons ago, I was slumping, so I tried wearing my pants down, and I started hitting much better. So I've kept them down since then.

So you're less of a traditionalist when it comes to other sports?

Traditionalism seems to fit best with baseball, because it has such a deep history. But with football, say, the performance benefit of having a tighter uniform has essentially led to a whole bunch of things that affected the visuals.

So you're saying the physical design has affected the graphic design.

Yes.

How would you describe your personal design philosophy? Like, would you say you're an old-school guy, or a push-the-envelope guy, or something else?

I've gone through several phases. There was a time when I was very, very contemporary, with lots of pointed lines and sharp insets. But in the last several years I think I've migrated into more of a neoclassic style -- designs that are contemporary but have a flavor of the past.

For me, our design for Northwestern is a really good example of that. We really focused on all the tradition they had. They were the first to do a uniform with a stripe, but we didn't just want to put the stripe on the sleeve -- we wanted to find a new spot for it. So we explored putting it across the chest. And the result is something that looks modern but is still based on tradition.

Also, I have to know my audience. At a school like Northwestern, you want to pay homage to that 100 years of football heritage. Then you have a school like Maryland, which does have a history, but they had kind of fallen out of the discussion. So when we did the Maryland "pride" uniform, the goal was to get them to become a household name again, so we had to step outside of the box. So even though my own personal tastes are a bit more neoclassic -- classic with a twist -- there are times when the customer dictates that we go in a different direction.

How did you get into uniform design professionally, and what did you do before that?

I studied graphic design at James Madison. For the first five or six years after college, I did corporate identities -- logos, brochures, branding. One of our clients was Savannah State University, and I ended up doing some design concepts for their sports teams. The project eventually fell through, but it got me back into the idea of sports design, like I'd been into it as a kid. So I started making uniform drawings again, only this time on the computer, just as a side thing, for fun. I had a portfolio of 90 different imaginary teams I had created.

So then, around 2005, I was doing design work for a PR firm, and I saw that Under Armour had a job listing for a men's senior designer -- a position for which I was entirely underqualified. But figured what the heck, sent in a cover letter and some of the designs I had created for those imaginary teams, and got hired. And then, on my third day here, we officially announced that we had signed a deal with Auburn, and I started working on their uniforms.

And the thing is, I truly was underqualified! I didn't know a thing about garment construction or how to sew. But I was in the right place at the right time, and the company decided to take a huge risk on me based on my passion and potential.

I know you design college football and basketball uniforms for Under Armour. Do you work on other sports as well?

I do. When I started here, Under Armour outfitted Maryland football, Maryland lacrosse and the Naval Academy lacrosse. Now, if you count high schools and minor leagues, we have over 400 teams. For my first three years here, pretty much any uniform Under Armour created came off of my computer. I've designed women's field hockey, volleyball, wrestling, everything. At some point I felt like I was being spread a little thin, and that there were people who could do a better job with some of those sports than I could, so our team grew. I lead a team of seven, and we're responsible for any uniform or anything a coach wears with the Under Armour logo.

Personally, I still design football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey. But over the next several months, I'll probably be transitioning away from those things, and into more of a creative director role. That should help me grow, and will also make room for some of our young, really talented designers.

When we were kids growing up, a team had two, maybe three uniforms -- home, road, and alternate. Now a team like Maryland can wear a different uniform almost every week. Uniforms are no longer very uniform. For some people, that's extremely exciting; for others, it means they turn on their TV on Saturday and don't recognize who's playing. Overall, is this a good thing or a bad thing, and why?

I think it's a little of both. It's exciting, because it allows teams to explore and express themselves in ways they wouldn't normally have done. It helps garner interest from younger fans, and it can attract student-athletes.

But at the same time, I respect people who say it's a bad thing, because there are lots of people who grew up seeing these teams with specific colors and specific looks. I mean, I'm a big Broncos fan, and I remember when they introduced that new uniform -- the same one they wear now -- after the 1996 season. I remember seeing John Elway at that press conference wearing a navy blue helmet, a navy jersey and navy pants. And remember, this was before NFL teams were going monotone.

And you're like, "Where's my orange?"

Right! People ask me what was the most important uniform in history, and I say it's that one, because it sparked this whole industry. It was the first uniform that explored space other than stripes on a sleeve. But as a Broncos fan, my immediate reaction was, "Where did my Broncos go?" I didn't know what to do with it. Over the course of time, I've come to appreciate it, but I totally understand people who say, "I like my team the way it is, and it should never change."

You mentioned earlier that you've worked with Auburn. Obviously, they're a more traditional school, at least in terms of football, and they've chosen to stick with their classic look. I know you guys have pitched them several modern designs, which they've turned down. Have you worked on those, and is that frustrating when a team wants to stick with what it already has?

In some respects, it can be refreshing when a team has so much tradition that it wants to stick with that, and that's perfectly OK with us. As a brand that wants to be progressive, we're always going to be offering those options to all of our universities, but it's entirely up to them. It always goes back to what the customer wants. So the way we've moved them along is with technology and fabrications.

How closely do you keep tabs on what Nike, adidas and the other companies are doing?

I think it's fair to say that everyone in this industry is very up-to-date on what everyone else is doing -- in part because it's a business, but also because we're all passionate about it.

Do you know the designers from the other companies personally? Like, is there some big uniform designers' club where you all hang out, where you can put aside your corporate differences at the end of the workday?

I've actually thought about that -- it is a small world. But no, I don't know the other designers. I have people who work for me who've worked for those other companies, though, so some of them know the other designers.

It seems like every time a new uniform is unveiled, whether it's by you guys or Nike or adidas, we always hear that it's 7 percent lighter or 10 percent more moisture-wicking or whatever. I picture you putting the other companies' jerseys on a scale, seeing how much they weigh, and saying, "OK, that's our target. We have to be lighter than that."

No, that's not how it works. I mean, I can go to a store and buy one of their jerseys, but that's not the same as a game jersey. I don't have access to those.

Come on, don't you have ways of getting your hands on the real deal?

I guess there probably are, but honestly, we don't do that. We all have a target to be lighter, to stretch more -- or less, depending on the sport -- and so on. And although it may seem like we have the same products, I think we really just have the same goals in mind. But we're achieving those goals by different means.

You mean you have proprietary, patented processes that you're not allowed to talk about, right?

Right. And of course the other guys do that, too. But we're all aiming for the same goals.

Speaking of things you're not supposed to talk about, give me a hint of something juicy that's in the pipeline.

Hmmmm. Hmmm. Ooh, how about this: We have something special in store for the University of South Florida. That's a program that we believe is on the upswing, and they've decided that they want to be progressive, so we have something special in store. It's not for every day, but it's special. You'll see it within the next 12 months.





Want still more Q&A with Adam Clement? Some bonus interview questions with him are available on the Uni Watch Blog.

Paul Lukas did lots of uniform drawings when he was a kid too, but unfortunately he no longer has them. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.